Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Limits of Comprehensiveness ?

From today's email comes this question:

"Where do Episcopalians go to find the limits of inclusion in order that we might arrive at comprehensiveness? Who (and/or what) defines it? Answer THAT question and I think we are getting closer to what SHOULD be core for us." Charlie Holt cCentral Florida

Here's my response:

I think Charlie's question is worth serious consideration. Rev. Holt lives in a county that was estimated by the US Census Bureau in 2006 to be about 70% white, non-Hispanic. That means that 3 of every ten Seminole County residents are either African-American, Latino or Asian/American Indian. Most parishes in Seminole County do not reflect the population of the surrounding county. That picture becomes even more pointed in nearby Orlando in Orange County, where I live. It is home of more than one million people which this year has become, like its California counterpart, a minority/majority county with no single ethnic/racial group constituting a majority. While some parishes here have made efforts to become the multicultural reflection of the populace they serve, the reality is that most of the parishes reflect the upper middle class white populations to which the Episcopal Church has traditionally served as a chaplaincy.

What is sad about this reality is the missed opportunity it represents. At St. Philips, the parish from which I was ordained deacon in San Jose, CA - a metropolitan area which has had a minority/majority population for two decades now - the gospel was read each Sunday in several languages. The altars and symbols surrounding the seating in the round reflected the Asian, Latino, American Indian and African-American cultures which, together with the white suburban population which began the parish years before, contributed to a rich cultural tapestry. The clergy reflected its Asian, American Indian, African American, Latino as well as white non-Hispanic parishioners. This was a place which recognized cultural diversity as a strength, an asset and the Diocese of El Camino Real in which it was located had made great efforts to be an inviting place for its multicultural population to worship together as the many colored people of G-d with some success.

But multicultural diversity comes at a price for many. Peoples from different cultural backgrounds come with different worldviews and presumptions about the faith. Foregone conclusions about what "everybody knows" - from human sexuality to the essentials of the faith - come into question. People in healthy multicultural contexts are required to continually check their own presumptions. They are required to commit to continual personal, cultural and spiritual growth. Perhaps more importantly, those of us who are white, non-Hispanic, are accustomed to being in control of our society and its institutions. Multicultural institutions place many of us in a situation to which we are totally unaccustomed - being out of control, one of many, rather than being at the top of the decision making hierarchy.

What this reality translates to is a lot of hard work. It translates to the requirement that one endure cognitive dissonance and to question one's own motives. It translates to loosening the grip on understandings one thought one held with absolute certainty and the embrace of the humbling experience of recognizing the limits of one's thinking and experience. Little wonder many people are more ready to talk about the limits of comprehensiveness than to recognize and act upon the opportunities for growth and enrichment that exist right under their noses.

But there is a more fundamental aspect to this question that must be recognized. Implicit within Rev. Holt's question is the presumption that there must be limits to inclusion and comprehensiveness and that the church must somehow define and defend those borders. It is a common presumption but a presumption - not a self-evident fact - nonetheless.

It is hardly a revelation that human beings have historically tended to surround themselves with like-minded, like-situated people who most often look like them. Nor is it news that they do this because they seek security. Having all theological questions settled for all times is seen by many people as very important. By preventing those who are different from being present, one can effectively prevent troubling questions about one's attitudes, one's prejudices, one's worldview, and yes, one's faith from ever being raised. At a very basic level, it is the idol of comfort which is being worshipped, a rousing chorus of "Oh, Come Let Us Adore Us."

I think any of us who confront people with change - whether it be in the classroom as I do (having long ago given up any thoughts of serving in the Diocese of Central Florida) or in the General Conventions of the church - must be aware of the pastoral implications of that demand. What the Church is asking people like Charlie Holt and his suburban parish to do is to recognize the limits of what so many have brought to the process of being church - limits of thinking, limits of experience, limits of the heart, limits of the spirit. And then they are asked to justify those limits in the light of the Great Commandments - loving the G-d of the universe more than our beloved but limited constructions of G-d and loving our neighbors as ourselves. On a good day, it is far from an easy - or painless -task.

Before we can even begin to answer Rev. Holt's question, presuming it is not merely rhetorical, there is a preliminary question we must broach: How hard are you willing to work at it? To quote Charlie, "Answer THAT question and I think we are getting closer to what SHOULD be core for us."

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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